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Think we’ve got problems with testing now, Mr Hancock? Just wait till winter

The Health Secretary is a past master at putting a positive spin on bad news – but today he was assailed by MPs from all sides

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, faced complaints from MPs about local shortages of Covid tests Credit: STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

At least one thing is going Matt Hancock’s way. The weather. This week, temperatures across much of Britain are unseasonably warm.

As autumn wears on, however, temperatures will naturally fall – and more and more children will come home from school sneezing and coughing. Perfectly normal. Happens every year. Except this time, the children may be suspected of having Covid, so they’ll be forced to stay at home. Which will in turn mean their parents will be forced to stay at home. And they won’t get the all-clear until they’ve had a test for Covid. Which is fine – unless, that is, there are shortages of tests. 

Like, say, the shortages we’ve got at the moment. But much worse. Because in cold weather the shortages would affect far more children, and therefore far more parents, and therefore far more employers.

A cheery thought. Mr Hancock, of course, is a past master at positive spin, but today (Tuesday), even his reserves of optimism were put under strain. In the Commons the Health Secretary found himself deluged by complaints from MPs – and not just ones sitting opposite him. Members on both sides told of constituents who’d been unable to book a test, or had been forced to drive absurdly long distances to get one. Some constituents in England, for example, had been ordered to travel to the north of Scotland. 

Then again, Munira Wilson, a Lib Dem, said her own constituents had discovered a novel way round this particular problem. For some reason, if they entered an Aberdeen postcode into the online system, they were able to get a test in their local area of Twickenham, southwest London. 

Mr Hancock, however, was unimpressed by their ingenuity. People, he retorted huffily, “should take this seriously and not game the system”. Naughty people of Twickenham. Why can’t they stop moaning and drive the 550miles to Aberdeen, like good, responsible citizens? It’s only nine hours’ drive. Unless of course there’s a traffic jam, which there may well be, with half the population of England driving there too. 

Gamely the Health Secretary tried to reassure everyone that the shortage of available tests was just a temporary hiccup, and in any case, only to be expected, in the circumstances. “When you have a free service,” he said, “it’s inevitable that demand rises.”

A slightly odd way of putting it, seeming to imply that some people were only requesting Covid tests because they couldn’t resist a freebie. (“Here, love, have you heard about these free tests they’re doing? Apparently they ram a whacking great long stick up your nose till you weep like a baby! Let’s all go and get one, sounds brilliant fun! And best of all, you don’t have to pay a penny! Unless you count the £100 you have to spend on petrol to get to the test centre!”)

Some MPs criticised the new social distancing rules. Rosie Duffield (Lab, Canterbury) demanded to know why big groups of people were still free to go grouse shooting together, whereas fathers were prevented from accompanying their pregnant wives to check-ups.

Surely the solution is simple. The father should simply turn up with a shotgun, and say he’s on his way to a grouse shoot. Obviously no one will believe him, but who’s going to argue with a man holding a shotgun?